Now that the NFL season is here, I’m putting a twist on my weekly Blogger on Blogger series. Each week, I will enlist a blogger who regularly writes about the Ravens’ opponent to help me break down the game. This week, I exchanged emails with Alec Shane, who blogs about the New England Patriots for Pats Pulpit.
MV: The Patriots have experienced a lot of turnover at the skill positions on offense, letting Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker walk and releasing Aaron Hernandez before he went to prison. Now Rob Gronkowski is out with a knee injury. How have the Patriots been able to rank sixth in scoring despite all that change?
AS: There are few teams better than the Patriots at utilizing the talent that they have and figuring out ways to get the most out of their players. Arguably their best receiver this year, Julian Edelman, was a quarterback in college and had to learn a new position almost entirely from scratch. Edelman has since become Brady's most reliable target and the only receiver who hasn't missed time due to injury. Having that ability to maximize talent, along with Bill Belichick's ability to exploit his opponents' weaknesses while taking away their strengths, keeps the Patriots scoring points. Whether it be taking advantage of a soft front line with a power running game, creating coverage mismatches by sending third-down back Shane Vereen out to be guarded by a linebacker, or finding holes in the zone with smaller, shiftier slot receivers, this season more than most has been all about taking what you have and running with it.
MV: How devastating is the loss of Gronkowski, particularly in the red zone, where the Patriots -- like the Ravens -- have struggled to score touchdowns in recent weeks?
AS: Losing Gronkowski hurts the Patriots in so many more areas than just the red zone. Gronk is a receiving force, a YAC machine, and one of the best blocking tight ends in the league. And while perhaps the lack of Gronk is most prevalent inside the 20 yard line -- 19 TDs on 27 red zone trips with Gronkowski versus 10 TDs on 26 trips without him -- not having a weapon like that on the field allows opposing defenses to completely change the way they attack New England's offense. It's easier to stack the box, bump the undersized receivers at the line, and pass off coverages into the secondary when there isn't such a glaring mismatch wreaking havoc all over the field. No Gronk means more pressure on Brady, which has always been his Achilles heel, and being able to out-muscle the smaller receivers disrupts the timing of the routes, which helps to explain why Brady hasn't been as accurate this year. It's just incredibly frustrating to know that New England went from having two unstoppable tight ends to signing guys off the street in just a few short months.
MV: Injuries have also been a factor for the New England defense, which has slumped in recent weeks without nose tackle Vince Wilfork and middle linebacker Jerod Mayo. The Patriots have spent a lot of high draft picks on defense and have Pro Bowl-caliber players in Aqib Talib and Chandler Jones. What has been their problem?
AS: For several seasons, the Patriots lived and died on two things defensively: stiffening up in the red zone to hold their opponents to field goals and generating turnovers in order to allow their offense to score a lot of points. This year seemed to be the year where the D was finally able to turn the corner. The pass rush was strong, there was a shutdown corner in Talib on one side and a high-upside young corner in Alfonzo Dennard on the other, Devin McCourty was thriving in his new role as safety, and the linebacker depth and versatility allowed for the defense to adjust to any number of offensive looks. Unfortunately, the key player at every single level of the defense has either missed multiple games or is out for the year. Because of that, this unit lost much of that versatility that allowed them to dictate what the offense did. Most players on the 2013 Patriots defense excel at one particular aspect of the game, and subbing guys in and out has become much more important. Other than Jones and McCourty, who are playing at an elite level, this unit just isn't the same. Perhaps the Talib injury, more than any other this year, has been the most damning. While he has been able to play through his hip injury, he simply hasn't been the same player. Prior to going down against the Saints, Talib only allowed 13 completions out of 33 balls thrown his way for 186 yards and one touchdown, averaging just 5.6 yards per target. Since then, he has been thrown at 29 times, allowing 21 completions for 386 yards and two touchdowns, averaging over 12 yards per target. Without Talib playing at his best and a front line that is now relying on two undrafted rookies -- not to mention the loss of both defensive captains and the main signal-caller in Mayo -- the Patriots can't play as much man coverage and have to rely on certain zone packages that put their linebackers on running backs or tight ends, a battle they are almost always going to lose.
MV: Jones, in just his second season, is tied for fourth in the NFL with 11.5 sacks. What is it about him that has allowed him to become a quality pass rusher so quickly?
AS: What Jones had going for him coming out of Syracuse was tremendous athleticism, raw talent, good football instincts, and brute strength, all of which had him in the running for Rookie of the Year until an ankle injury hampered his season. He has now had a full season and offseason to hone his skills, work on his pass rush moves (one of his weaknesses coming into the draft), and get a better feel for the speed of the NFL, which is quickly making him a cornerstone of what could have been an extremely formidable front line had Vince Vilfork and Tommy Kelly not been lost for the season. I'm very much looking forward to watching Jones' career develop and how he will be able to cause all kinds of problems once Wilfork gets back.
MV: Last year’s AFC championship game was the latest playoff disappointment for Tom Brady and the Patriots, who have not been able to win a Super Bowl since the 2004 season. It has been remarkable how the Patriots have kept their championship window open throughout Brady’s career, but do you see it closing soon?
AS: I feel like every offseason, there is an absolute onslaught of "Tom Brady's Window is Closing" articles, and yet every year he keeps the Patriots right in the middle of the Super Bowl conversation. Obviously, Brady is much closer to the end of his career than he is to the beginning, but until he starts performing at a decidedly lower level, I'm going to keep giving him the benefit of the doubt. Granted, he's having a down year in 2013 statistically, but seeing as what he has had to work with, that he has been able to generate 10 wins -- several of which came on the final plays of the game -- I don't think it's fair to say that Brady is in decline based on numbers alone. I think he still has at least two more good years left, maybe even three, as Brady hasn't taken too many big hits over the years. It's easy to say that the Patriots are done, but as long as they have Brady and Belichick, they will always be dangerous.
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